Donne on Death

By Elesha Coffman, assistant editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

Today marks the anniversary of the death of pastor and metaphysical poet John Donne. The anniversary is an appropriate time to remember him, as he has been accused of being obsessed with death—two of his most famous phrases are "death be not proud" and "for whom the bell tolls," and 32 of his 54 songs and sonnets center on the theme. But his morbid tendencies were neither unfounded nor without an attendant hope.

Donne (1572-1631) lived at a volatile time in England's history. Born into a Roman Catholic family when anti-Catholic sentiments ran high, his affiliation cost him family members (his uncle and brother were killed for their faith) and degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, withheld despite his excellent academic performance. He eventually converted to the Church of England, and he enjoyed the favor of King James I; he even preached the coronation sermon for the king's son, Charles I. Despite his religious associations, however, he lived a famously profligate youth, and his early poetry is often lewd and explicit. (Of Elegy XIX, "To His Mistress Going to Bed," my literature professor at Wheaton said, "Yes, it's pornographic—but it's well written.")

After his marriage to Anne More (he was 30, she was 17, her father was not pleased), Donne settled down. He began a more serious study of religion and experienced a spiritual crisis; his "Holy Sonnets" were composed in this spirit. These reflect a profound shift in Donne's poetry, as he focuses his passion on heavenly rather than earthly love. His spiritual insights garnered attention, and he was persuaded to leave court life for a post in the church. At the height of his career, ...

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